In appearance, it is just an industrial warehouse in an industrial estate in Lepe (Huelva), but what is hidden behind its green door shows that alternatives can be found willingly for temporary shanty towns.. In its 313 square meters, the New Citizens Association for Interculturality (Asnuci) has built a temporary shelter for 40 day laborers. It’s almost ready.
The kitchen is missing, but the rooms on the ground floor, for women, and the one upstairs, for men, already have bunk beds and closets. There are two shower areas, four washing machines, living room and dining room. It has risen in the middle of the pandemic, with the only help of contributions from individuals in a campaign on social networks that has raised 100,000 euros.
“We have done it before the inaction of the administrations. It is a gesture to show that solutions can be found: excuses are not worth it ”, explains Seydou Diop, spokesman for Asnuci and one of the main promoters of the project.
This accommodation is the exception in Andalusia, where there are 119 shanty towns: 40 in the province of Huelva and 79 in Almería. Some 13,000 people live in them, according to data provided by the Huelva NGO Multicultural Association of Mazagón and Almería Welcomes the Petitions Committee of the European Parliament, which has asked the Commission to investigate the situation.
The villages have been rising since the late 1990s and have settled at the mercy of the fruit and vegetable industry that began to assimilate foreign labor at the beginning of the 21st century.
Javier Pérez, coordinator of Cepaim in Andalusia, explains that “in Almería, the settlements have always been permanent due to the type of agriculture, and [in them] families live, with women and children; in Huelva, at the beginning, they only got up for the duration of a campaign, but now they live all year round and there is more and more overcrowding ”.
The situation is the same, or worse, than 25 years ago: they lack drinking water, electricity or garbage collection. There are no official censuses, but the calculations of the different associations that work with them agree that between 60% and 80% of its inhabitants are in an irregular situation.
The maximum stay in the Lepe shelter is six months, which lasts for one campaign. It is not a charity and Diop makes that very clear. Pérez explains that “to enter you have to be a member of Asnuci and pay a € 96 deposit. It is a rent and you have to pay for water and electricity ”. And it has an impact: “They say that we live in shacks because we want to save money and that is nothing more than prejudice, nobody likes to live like that.”
Diop knows what he’s talking about. He came to Spain four years ago from Senegal and lived in the Lepe settlements. “I have broken my soul to get out of this situation,” he explains. Now he continues to work in the field as a mediator and interpreter. In front of his shelter another stands up. It was started by the Lepe City Council in 2005 to house temporary workers and in 2011 it was abandoned after an investment of more than one million euros.
Now it is occupied by a hundred day laborers. One of them, Francisco Braima, 64, says: “We don’t want anything for free, but in three months I haven’t won 2,000 euros. How am I going to pay a rent? And remember the fear that happened in the settlement fires last summer. “When everything burns, they come to be interested, but then everything remains the same. Nobody helps, ”he laments.
In front of this second shelter, some shacks in a neighboring town can be seen, the same as those that surround Yousseff Alsisi, who unloads sand in a wheelbarrow, 60 kilometers away. He is kneading a rudimentary cement mix to tile the surface of another slum. “It takes five minutes for everything to burn and a week to get it back on its feet,” he says with a sad smile.
Alsisi has been helping to build shacks since a fire destroyed half of his settlement in Palos de la Frontera (Huelva) on February 19. The fire reduced to nothing not only the flimsy buildings, but also the future of many of its inhabitants, who saw their documentation burn and the money saved. He rebuilt his on March 2, as he has marked on the asphalt of the entrance. “It cost me 250 euros,” he says. This is the sum of the price of the pallets (at two euros each), the cartons and the mix for the cement.
As he has no papers, Alsisi cannot find a job: “My neighbors pay me about 20 euros to build their houses.” Fousseynu Tounkara and Fanoumou Camara, from Mali, do not have the money to set up theirs and sleep in the open when they cannot find a room for a partner. Not far away, in Lucena del Puerto, there are 13 other settlements standing.
In Santa Catalina, the Ghanaian Ato has a small bar, where there is a church and Spanish classes are offered. In the afternoons his place fills up with compatriots who come to have a beer for one euro and watch football matches. Morales warns that “we must not forget that these people are neighbors of their municipalities and that the towns, even if they are far away, are already neighborhoods.”
550 kilometers away, at the other end of Andalusia, the scene in Níjar (Almería), the poorest municipality in Spain , is similar. The Atochares camp is built with plastics, wood and a few bricks. An invisible island where about 800 people reside in two neighborhoods. To the south live people of Maghreb origin. To the north, sub-Saharan Africans, who saw their area burn on February 13.
This week, those who did not go to work in the greenhouses were busy rebuilding their houses on the ashes. Richard and Yao from Ghana put cement between concrete blocks guided by pencils. Around him, rubble and pallets with sacks of cement and bricks.
They hardly have the support of some citizen groups and the solidarity of the rest of the settlement. “Any help is welcome,” they say with fireproof dignity along with dozens of bikes, almost the only means of transportation for these neighbors.
Nadia Azougagh, activist from the La Resistencia collective, says that here “the situation is dramatic: they are the basis of the wealth of the province [Almeria’s agriculture has a turnover of 3,500 million euros per year] and they are forced to live in subhuman situations.” Over tea, inside a precarious but clean and cozy plastic hut, Azougagh tells stories plagued by terrible working conditions and the impossibility of accessing decent housing.
The Secretary General of Andalusia Welcomes, José Miguel Morales, acknowledges that “the absence of shelters, the shortage of rental flats or real estate racism when renting to migrants and the seasonality of the campaigns explains the proliferation of these camps.” In Níjar, the Idealista portal offers only three rooms to share – at about 250 euros a month – and 24 homes, only six for less than 500 euros a month. The figure is practically the salary that, hopefully, those who work every day get each month.
Spiral of excuses
The registry is the gateway to rights and to start the very complex task of regularization, a process full of obstacles, many insurmountable without that first step. Registration is a right and an obligation that justice has endorsed in the case of shacks.
The municipalities, however, are reluctant with the excuse of the possible effect called. “It would be recognizing an irregularity,” explains Miguel Mora, mayor of Lucena del Puerto, which with just over 3,000 inhabitants is home to a dozen shanty towns, the most in Huelva.
The mosaic of neighbors and realities that inhabit the settlements means that a single alternative for their eradication is no longer possible. Social entities speak of encouraging social rental, the installation of prefabricated modules next to greenhouses or the construction of shelters, among other ideas that have not been implemented for decades.
All solutions go through a coordinated and joint action of the administrations involved – municipal, regional and state -, fruit and vegetable companies and social entities, but in the last quarter of a century they all offer an infinite spiral of excuses to assume or lead the eradication of the settlements.
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In 2020, the Junta de Andalucía released an item of 2.2 million euros for the covid for municipalities with settlements in order to guarantee the supply of drinking water, electricity or garbage collection. Níjar was the municipality that benefited the most: more than 700,000 euros, but its solutions have only been specific patches, almost always with the mediation of NGOs.
In the rest of cases the situation is similar and, this year, financial aid has been cut in half and its recipients will once again be the associations. The central government has also granted subsidies for social care, according to the Government Delegation, through humanitarian aid programs.
The harsh report of the United Nations rapporteur a year ago and the announcement by Brussels that the EU will investigate the situation of its inhabitants have started to cause slight changes. The City Council of Lepe (Huelva, 27,880 inhabitants), the epicenter of strawberry cultivation that employs 160,000 people in the province and that in the first quarter of 2020 had a turnover of 428 million euros, seems willing to take the initiative with an ambitious plan to eradicate the shanty town, which on March 8 was unanimously approved by its municipal groups (PP, PSOE and Cs).
The initiative contemplates giving municipal land to build a temporary accommodation complex in exchange for the payment of a canon for 500 people and has a cost of 600,000 euros. “The migrants would reside for two years to advance in the regularization of their situation and as they settled in, the shacks would be demolished with the intention that they would not rise again,” explains Jesús Toronjo, deputy mayor.
The plan includes other initiatives that it needs from the private sector and the rest of the administrations, which have not yet been involved. Associations, generally skeptical, show a certain optimism. From Cepaim, Pérez points out that it is “a big project, that if it achieves a small objective it will be good”.
Awareness is also taking root in a good part of the business sector, although the Huelva employers of the red fruit sector (Interfresa) and that of the Almeria producers (Coexphal) do not consider that the settlements are their problem and look towards the administrations. “We already contribute by providing employment and paying exorbitant taxes”, underlines Juan Colomina, CEO of the Almería association.
In Huelva, Interfresa tries to integrate the guiding principles on Human Rights of the UN and has expanded its team of mediators. Some businessmen have committed to welcoming temporary workers with work permits from settlements into the homes of their farms. Those who do not have a regularized situation must continue in the underground economy.
A spokesman for the Immigrant Assistance Team (Edati) of the Civil Guard explains that “exploitation is the order of the day.” And one of the agents who offers help in their periodic visits to the settlements adds that “they do not report any more because they lose what little they receive and are left without social protection.”
For her part, Noureddine Hmaimsa, who spent two years among shacks in La Paula (Nijar) after arriving there in 2006 at just 15 years of age, says that “getting out of there is very difficult.” Today he resides in the town and works as a Red Cross volunteer in his spare time. who spent two years among shacks in La Paula (Nijar) after arriving there in 2006 at just 15 years old, says that “getting out of there is very difficult.”
Today he resides in the town and works as a Red Cross volunteer in his spare time. who spent two years among shacks in La Paula (Nijar) after arriving there in 2006 at just 15 years old, says that “getting out of there is very difficult.” Today he resides in the town and works as a Red Cross volunteer in his spare time.
Hmaimsa is an example that there is a future beyond the mud of the shanty streets. Diop’s shelter is another glimmer of hope. Meanwhile, in the scorched landscapes that the towns of Palos and Atochares have become almost a month after their fires, in the middle of the morning, only the clatter of hammers assembling pallets or shovels mixing cement can be heard.
Camara and Fousseynu wander aimlessly among famished scaffolds that show the willingness of their neighbors to remain there in the absence of alternatives. It is a paltry frame of fragile wood that even these two Malian friends cannot afford. “Can you get them to help us build our shack?” They ask next to their burned plot.